Monday 19 August 2019

Ben Chapman: 'It sounds just the job for many, but is an eight-hour working week really feasible?'

Hard graft: Men and women busy at a factory in London in 1916 – many of us still work the 40-hour week laid in stone a century ago. Photo: REUTERS/Archive of Modern Conflict London
Hard graft: Men and women busy at a factory in London in 1916 – many of us still work the 40-hour week laid in stone a century ago. Photo: REUTERS/Archive of Modern Conflict London

Ben Chapman

Researchers may have found that eight hours of employment is the most "effective dose" per week for mental wellbeing - but, with the average closer to 40 hours, could cutting down the working week to one day ever become a reality?

The long-term trends look good for the leisure-seeker - at first glance at least. Since the 19th century, working hours have fallen sharply in industrialised nations, partly prompted by the demands made by organised labour.

In the late 1900s, UK workers put in more than 2,500 hours a year on average compared with 1,680 in 2017.

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But most of those gains took place in the early part of the 20th century and the trend has stalled.

As far back as 1817, the Welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen proposed "eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest" as the standard work day.

But despite significant gains in productivity - the amount of output per hour - most of us still work essentially the same 40-hour, five-day week implemented by Henry Ford almost 100 years ago.

And official data shows that the number of working hours has barely budged since 1992.

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that the onward march of higher and higher productivity from modern manufacturing methods would result in a 15-hour working week by 2030.

With little more than a decade to go, that leisure society Keynes foresaw has manifestly not become a reality. Instead, productivity gains have largely been ploughed into increasing consumption, with working hours remaining relatively long.

We are now frequently told that many people are "cash-rich and time-poor" and therefore need all manner of time-saving devices and services. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and automation have revived fears that tens of millions of jobs will be lost to robots. But, if looked at through Keynes's lens, they also present an opportunity for more time to do what we truly enjoy.

Robots can do the menial tasks while we enjoy more free time without sacrificing our current level of consumption.

Most labour market surveys suggest many of us want fewer hours at work (although a significant number also want more but can't find it). However, for automation to prompt a change in this direction would require a significant shift in how we view the purpose of our economy, along with a large slice of political will.

Currently, we focus on continuously increasing the size of the economy - our gross domestic product (GDP).

The benefits of increased automation could equate to increased profits for the relatively wealthy owners of robots while millions lose their jobs and need to go out and find new ones. To secure a shorter working week, society would need to ensure a different scenario in which benefits of any additional productivity are distributed evenly.

Rather than allowing millions to be pushed out of work, society would instead redistribute the billions of fewer (human) working hours required to produce the same amount of goods and services, leaving us all working less.

GDP might not grow as fast as it otherwise might, but we could be a bit happier, less stressed and even a little more productive.

There are some hints of a move towards this seemingly utopian goal, starting with how we measure the economy. A growing body of research has sought to move beyond GDP as the best yardstick of progress and to take into account environmental and social aspects such as wellbeing as well.

This is tentatively being put into practice.

The European Commission has its 'Beyond GDP' initiative for this purpose. Earlier this month, New Zealand's government put forward a budget aimed at the health and life satisfaction of its citizens.

Might this result in a significantly shorter working week for us any time soon?

Given that predictions of a "leisure society" have been knocking about for at least 90 years now, it's probably best not to bank on it just yet. (© Independent News Service)

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